Returning to the Workplace: Mitigating the Impact on Employee Well-being

Does this sound familiar?

“We are returning to the workplace in January.”

“No, we are returning to the workplace in March.”

“Scratch that; we are returning to the workplace the week after Labor Day.”

“We are scrapping plans to return to the workplace until after the New Year.”

“Please don’t ask me when we are returning to the workplace.”

For many organizations, the return to the workplace is still as uncertain as ever. As spikes in cases and new variants emerge, plans to return to the workplace continue to get pushed back. While workplaces are doing their best to protect their employees during the pandemic, these constant shifts in plans are causing employees to experience more anxiety and stress.

Ultimately, when organizations move forward with their return to the workplace plans, they will face many challenges that will impact employee well-being.

There will be employees who have “reentry anxiety” worried about their safety in the workplace. Some may fear social interactions with colleagues because they are worried about contracting COVID-19 and exposing their family members (especially children not eligible for the vaccine).

On the other hand, some employees will be eager to return to the workplace. This group of employees craves social interaction, and they might be excessively social at the onset of the return. While social interaction is significant for well-being, employees not ready to interface with their colleagues out of fear for their health will feel uneasy.

There will also be employees who are angry about returning to the workplace. These employees might not believe there is a legitimate reason for the return, or they may not agree with company vaccine or masking policies.

Employers will also be challenged with employee turnover if they return to the workplace. Many employees have embraced working from home for a variety of reasons. According to a Harvard Business Review survey, employees want to work from home 2.5 days a week on average. The survey also revealed that over 36% of employees would return to the workplace but would start seeking work-from-home opportunities.

The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for organizations to evolve their culture and make lasting changes around mental well-being in the workplace.

Organizations that seize this opportunity will enjoy the benefits of a supportive culture, including higher employee retention, better morale, greater loyalty and improved performance and productivity.


Here are several considerations for addressing employee well-being as you return to the workplace.

Transparent Communication

Whether you expect employees to work a hybrid schedule or return to the workplace full-time, transparent communication is vital for mitigating employee anxiety and stress.

Communications should detail when employees are expected to return, any new policies and safety protocols, changes to the office layout, and most importantly, the “why” (business rationale) for returning to the workplace. Be clear about the benefits of returning to the workplace, including building a connection with co-workers, better innovation and increased communication. Furthermore, be sure to address the anticipated challenges and how employees can help the organization work through them.

Before returning to the workplace, train your managers on organizational expectations. Like your employees, they must understand why you ask them to return to the office. After all, managers will be fielding most of the criticism from employees. They need to know how to respond to the questions and feedback they receive appropriately.


Reorientation to the Workplace

Employees have been working from home for nearly two years. While working from home, they may have developed new habits and routines not suitable for the workplace.

Like new employees who must learn company policies and procedures, employees must understand how they are expected to behave in the workplace. Consider scheduling a reorientation with employees before bringing them back. This is a great time also to reinforce dress codes and identify resources available if they are struggling with the transition.


Be Flexible

It’s critical to recognize that transitioning back into the workplace will not be easy for everyone. The workplace employees are returning to is not the same workplace they left. When considering your return to the workplace plans, flexibility is essential for helping employees adjust to the new environment.

Flexibility requires organizations to remove absolute terminology such as “always,” “never,” or “definitely” from dialogue with employees. The use of these terms leaves no room for flexibility, change or growth. For example, if you say that we are “definitely” returning to the workplace next month and then postpone it, building trust with employees becomes more difficult.

Soliciting employee feedback is another consideration for how flexible employers must be during the transition. Pulse surveys are great for understanding how the transition impacts employees. Just remember, if you ask for their opinions, they will need to see that their feedback and suggestions are being considered.


Company Culture

Much like when we shifted to working from home, finding safe ways for employees to connect can boost morale and well-being. Keeping a vibrant workplace culture will make the transition easier for most employees.

Additionally, practicing gratitude, especially on difficult days, is excellent for building a culture of resilience. We can practice gratitude by asking our teams, “What are three things you are grateful for about your company?” “Who is showing up for you?” “What is bringing you joy?”


Lead with Empathy

Empathy is a trait that we all have, and it is strengthened the more we use it. Now is the perfect time for leaders and managers to start practicing empathy.

As organizations implement return-to-the-workplace plans, they must rely on their leaders to manage flexibly and empathetically. Continually investing in empathetic leadership skills will be a growing part of every leader’s role.

Leading with empathy allows managers to build strong relationships with their people. It creates a greater level of trust, making it more likely that an individual is open to sharing when something impacts their well-being. Additionally, empathetic leadership contributes to overall loyalty and commitment to the organization.


Prioritize Self-Care

There has long been a perception that self-care is selfish or self-indulgent. When self-care should be front and center, many individuals neglect themselves because they have too much going on in their lives. If we feel like this, self-care will never be a priority.

When we make constant adjustments to our daily lives, it takes a lot of energy. If we don’t take the time to replenish that energy, it will be difficult for many to make further adjustments in the future, including adapting to the new workplace.

Encouraging your employees to incorporate small self-care habits into their daily routine can significantly impact their mental health, overall well-being, and energy levels. It can be easy as drinking a glass of water, building movement into your day, taking a screen break, or doing some deep breathing.

Returning to the workplace is an enormous task for organizations. The slightest misstep can derail even the best of plans and cause greater anxiety and stress for employees. Involving a workplace mental health solutions provider like BHS in your planning can help mitigate the challenges of bringing employees back to the workplace.

Want to dig deeper? Learn how to prepare your leaders to lead in the Covid-era workplace.

Post Written by

Director, Clinical Excellence

Dr. Joanna (Jo) Hayward is the Director of Clinical Excellence at BHS. She is responsible for ensuring that the BHS care team upholds our vision and care philosophy. A Baltimore native, Jo earned her B.A. in psychology from Loyola University Maryland. She then achieved her M.A. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Toledo. Afterward, she completed an APA accredited internship and fellowship at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. Jo is also a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland.